By MARSHA MERCER
When President Richard Nixon left the White House for his historic trip to China, he addressed about 1,500 cheering school children and thousands of administration officials and federal workers who thronged the South Lawn.
The departure ceremony on Feb. 17, 1972, was broadcast live on radio and TV. The New York Times reported that first lady Pat Nixon wore a full-length blond mink coat as she followed her husband to the waiting helicopter.
These days, Americans are nothing if not blasé about presidential travel.
When President Barack Obama left Thursday for his weeklong trip to Asia, the big news was that the parents of the “balloon boy” would plead guilty to charges stemming from the publicity stunt.
It may seem unremarkable that Obama is on the road. With this, his eighth foreign trip as president, he will set a record for the most countries visited by a president in his first year – 20. Michelle Obama stayed home this time.
Nixon’s send-off was over the top because Nixon loved pomp, and because he was the first president to visit China.
“This is the week that changed the world!” he declared at the end of his visit.
This is Obama’s first trip to China. The White House is downplaying expectations for tangible results of the trip. And yet, it is significant that Obama once again is reminding the world that he’s not George W. Bush and that America’s worldview has shifted.
“The overarching theme is that America is a Pacific nation,” said Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.
Obama, who was born in Hawaii and lived in Indonesia as a child, is the first president with “an Asia-Pacific orientation,” Rhodes said, and “he understands that the future of our prosperity and our security is very much tied to this part of the world."
For most of our history, a Europe- and Atlantic-centric notion of America prevailed. The Asia-Pacific tilt reflects 21st century reality. China and Japan hold $800 billion and $731 billion in U.S. debt respectively. Our economic future and theirs are intertwined. Trade, currency values, global warming and security issues call for candid discussions.
Obama’s travels are not a sign of his “wanderlust,” said Jeffrey Bader, senior director for East Asian affairs with the National Security Council. Instead, they reflect an international agenda -- wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, nuclear programs in Iran and North Korea, climate change and the worldwide economic crisis – that is no less daunting than the domestic one.
The president also believes that "it is essential to restore American leadership, influence, image, and standing in a world where all have suffered in recent years," Bader said.
Obama’s visits to Japan, China, Singapore and South Korea come as he may be more popular there than here. The Pew Global Attitudes Project asked people worldwide last spring if they were confident that Obama will do the right thing in world affairs.
In China, 62 percent of those surveyed said they were confident Obama would do the right thing, compared with just 30 percent who had been confident about President George W. Bush last year. In Japan, Obama had an 85 percent confidence rating, while Bush had only 25 percent last year. In Indonesia, Obama had the confidence of 71 percent of those surveyed, compared with Bush’s 23 percent.
Besides making speeches, meeting with presidents and prime ministers and participating in the Asia- Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Obama will attend a state dinner with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Beijing. In Seoul, he and South Korea President Lee Myung-bak have scheduled a news conference.
Details are being worked out for a town-hall style meeting with students in Shanghai. The White House wants to build on the good feelings young Chinese have for Obama.
A professor of English at Shanghai International Studies University wrote recently that this is the first time in his 18 years in China that he has seen T-shirts for sale with the image of a U.S. president. Pirated DVDs of Obama’s speeches and print editions of his books are also for sale on the street, Mark C. Eades wrote on the Christian Science Monitor’s csmonitor.com.
Obama may not change the world in a week, as Nixon proclaimed he had, but Obama is sending the message that the United States intends to compete in Asia and remain a leader on the world stage.
Speaking of which, the president won’t need to put away his suitcase when he returns. He is expected to travel to Oslo next month to accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.